Reviews — From the January 2015 issue

New Television

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This month, when Downton Abbey purrs, Rolls Royce–like, into its fifth season, I’ll be among the 10 million people who loyally tune in for the premiere; but I doubt I’ll stick around much longer. I rarely do. The luxe British import is just the latest in a string of once-beloved disappointments that have made me start to wonder, in this much-touted New Golden Age of television drama, whether the genre itself has feet of clay.

Like so many others, I immediately got wrapped up in the saga of the Crawley family, inhabitants of the titular estate, when Downton first aired four years ago. The inexhaustible anthropological spectacle of the British class system in action — trimmed with elaborate haberdashery and Brobdingnagian table settings, stuffed into an immense country house complete with a painterly park — proved as irresistible in 2011 as it had in 1981, when Brideshead Revisited aired, and 1971, when the weekly installments of Upstairs, Downstairs would find my Long Island family clustered around the black-and-white television in the playroom downstairs.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

And yet by the third season of Downton, my interest was wandering. By that point, after all, the crisis that had propelled the first two seasons had been resolved. (Because of an entail as confounding as any Jane Austen ever dreamed up, the Crawleys, who had no son but three daughters, were in danger of losing their grand home unless one of the girls managed to fall in love with the nice but middle-class cousin who was the legal heir.) As a result, Season 3 — which consisted of a breathless jumble of financial disasters and eleventh-hour rescues, a tragic death from preeclampsia, and a surprise inheritance following yet another death, from Spanish flu — felt both empty and hyperactive. Long before the finale, when Matthew Crawley, the handsome blond heir, happily wedded at last to the aristocratic sylph Lady Mary Crawley and now the father of a bouncing baby boy, fatally swerved his roadster to avoid a truck on a bucolic country road, something precious had died.

But then, something so often dies around Season 3. A decade and a half since the premieres of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire showed us how complex and playful and serious television could be, it’s interesting to consider how many of even the most ingenious shows seem to start running in place after a few years. The macabre fun of Six Feet Under, with the hilariously inventive deaths that set each episode and its themes in action (will anyone who saw the “blue ice” episode ever feel safe again when a plane flies overhead?), grew stale after a couple of years: the pleasure waned as the portentousness waxed. So too with 24, the first season of which I watched, all at once, in about twenty-eight hours, so enthralled was I by the brilliance of its real-time narrative gimmick. Lost entranced me for a couple of seasons, until the metastasizing plot twists became more exhausting than entertaining. Scandal, like Revenge, provided guilty Cheez Whiz pleasures, delicious at first but a bit nauseating soon after. The list goes on.

In some cases, the reason for the disenchantment was clear: the novelty of a clever narrative device or story idea wore off over time, and revealed fairly conventional drama, characters, or themes beneath. (So in the cases of 24 and, later, House of Cards.) But in other shows the causes of disappointment were harder to pinpoint. Like Downton, many of these series had terrific acting and intelligent scripts, and were cleverly directed and beautifully produced. Yet even in these shows the tension soon snapped. Why? The answer has less to do with the particulars of this or that series than with the DNA of the series form itself.

An important clue lies in the increasingly frantic state of affairs of Downton Season 4: To the already crowded narrative mix the writers added a rape and a second murder rap for one homicide-prone character. If all the busyness sounds compensatory, that’s because it is. From the start the series presented itself as a drama about the house and its fate. The marriage plot served that larger story, the simmering flirtation between its ostensibly mismatched leads giving a crucial larger coherence to the otherwise necessarily episodic goings-on. But after Lady Mary married Matthew and that problem was resolved, the tension evaporated. Instead of plot there was only “plottiness.”

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’s most recent book is Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture (New York Review Books).

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